The World

Clearing the Smoke

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is using disinformation and a pliant media to fend off criticism over the Amazon fires.

A farmer is seen at a burned area of the Amazon rainforest.
A farmer is seen at a burned area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Monday. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 19, night fell over São Paulo in the middle of the afternoon. Brazil’s largest city was unexpectedly engulfed by darkness when a thick smog covered the sky hours before sunset. Soon after, as the rain poured down, residents reported pitch-black water with a burning smell filling plastic bottles and buckets.

Explanations and theories about what was behind the unlikely phenomenon ensued. Experts largely attributed it to a passing cold front and heavy clouds, but they diverged regarding the role played by wildfire smoke coming from the Amazon region and whether it had originated in the northern states of Brazil or in Bolivia and Paraguay. Meanwhile, hashtags like #PrayForAmazonia and #SaveTheAmazon were trending on Twitter, internationally—boosted by celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna—and headlines worldwide quickly warned of a “catastrophe,” linking the burning Amazon to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies of allowing deforestation for agriculture.

But for those following the mainstream news channels in Brazil and President Jair Bolsonaro’s Twitter, the apocalyptic scenarios felt a lot less urgent. The conservative-leaning national newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, for example, prompted its readers to submit their best pictures of the “horrorlike” evening in São Paulo, and a well-known Brazilian news portal compared the event to the Netflix show Stranger Things and Batman’s Gotham City. The next day, when an armed man held 38 people hostage inside a bus in Rio de Janeiro, the thrilling police operation promptly took over the country’s headlines and breaking news coverage. Across social media, however, Brazilians immediately began to call out the national press—while asking for international attention—for its silence around the fires in the Amazon. “The death of the Amazon will not be televised,” some wrote.

For weeks before the darkened sky in São Paulo became international news, wildfires had been plaguing the country’s northern states, with little to no attention. In Rondônia, fire activities went up by 190 percent between January and August. Overall, there were more than 72,000 fire outbreaks in Brazil this year, an 84 percent increase in relation to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Earlier in August, the government of Rondônia declared a state of emergency as a result of the growing levels of carbon monoxide in the air, but it wasn’t until NASA released satellite images showing a smoke corridor across the country that the general public seemed to have become aware of the severity of the situation.

“It’s hard to make people care about what happens on a daily basis in the Amazon,” says Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil’s public policy coordinator. “But the episode in São Paulo finally made it explicit.”

Joaquim Guilherme Strelow, a chemistry student who has lived in Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia, for all of his 22 years, says that what people in São Paulo witnessed for a couple of hours on that Monday is what he has seen everyday for the past three weeks. According to Strelow, the local population is suffering from respiratory problems and irritated eyes and skin. Many are choosing not to leave their houses, or to wear masks. Less than two weeks ago, as reported locally, a couple was found dead after attempting to escape enclosing fire.

“We are dying slowly,” Strelow says, pointing to lack of media coverage and political polarization as problems. “It’s like there are two universes in Brazil, with people in other regions calling scientific numbers about the fires lies and associating them with political ideology. But we’re seeing it happen. It’s not an opinion—these are facts.”

Despite a recent poll showing that 88 percent of Brazilian voters are concerned about the deforestation of the Amazon and 90 percent want the president and Congress to take action, the issue is still polarizing. Marina Silva, an environmentalist and former presidential candidate, was attacked by Bolsonaro’s supporters on Twitter after writing an article about the “holocaust of the Amazon.” Many are also calling other public figures and journalists alarmists and instigators of a leftist conspiracy. One user went so far as to question NASA’s credibility, claiming that the agency had altered its satellite images to jeopardize Bolsonaro’s government. Claims of fake news were further fueled by the widespread sharing of outdated photos of the forest on social media.

Not unlike his supporters, denying and twisting facts seems to be one of Bolsonaro’s favorite Trump-like strategies to deflect attention from his anti-environmental policies. Since taking office and in keeping with his campaign promises, he has continuously taken steps to undermine the authority of environmental agencies and to open up protected lands to agriculture and mining. Recently, the president fired the head of INPE after the space institute released data showing a significant increase in deforestation in the Amazon; Bolsonaro dismissed the numbers as lies. Following international outcry over the fires, the government has taken the position of blaming the blazes on a dry season. But numbers from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute show that the 10 municipalities with the most number of wildfires in 2019 are also the ones with the highest deforestation rates. The fires are clearly deliberate.

Then, in early August, after farmers and loggers openly engaged in a “Fire Day,” burning large areas of forest to clear land and “show Bolsonaro their willingness to work,” the president accused, without any evidence, NGOs of setting the fires to make the government look bad. The allegations were widely reported on by the Brazilian media. But critics have pointed to the danger, in this case, of a journalistic method that only reproduces quotes without challenging the president’s frivolous allegations. It was then up to the environmental groups themselves to condemn what they called an attempt to “criminalize organizations” by manipulating public opinion against the work done by civil society. The president, they argue, doesn’t need NGOs to tarnish the country’s international image.

Indeed, Norway and Germany have since moved to suspend donations to the Amazon Fund, which supports projects to curb deforestation, and France and Ireland are threatening to torpedo a planned trade deal between Europe and Mercosur unless Bolsonaro’s government takes action. On Friday, he announced the deployment of Brazilian military troops to fight the fires, but the following week rejected a $22.2 million package of aid from the G-7, saying Brazil had not been involved in the decision-making process.

In response to criticism, the Brazilian government has accused these foreign countries of attempting to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty. That claim, one that deeply resonates with his base, is further fed into by Bolsonaro’s public feud with French President Emmanuel Macron, following the European leader’s statement ahead of the G-7 meeting criticizing his Brazilian counterpart for lying about his commitments to climate change. In a popular hashtag in support of the Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, who was booed at an international climate event last week, there are hundreds of comments from users attacking Macron. And a meme comparing the first ladies of the two countries, with a disrespectful comment about French first lady Brigitte Macron’s looks, is being shared widely on Facebook with the endorsement of Bolsonaro himself.

“He seems to be having fun with it, making jokes and blaming others,” Astrini says. “Instead of fighting the fire, the president is lighting the match.”

All the while, Bolsonaro is also trying to cool down the fire against him. Off Twitter, he went on live television on Friday to give a statement about the Amazon. He said the blazes shouldn’t justify the imposition of sanctions against Brazil and criticized the media and the use of misinformation for political purposes. While abroad, the media has branded Bolsonaro “inflammatory” and even the cancer of the Earth’s lungs. The press in Brazil, facing criticism on one side for insufficient coverage and on the other for environmental sensationalism, appears to be taking a more reticent approach—one that seems to only benefit and encourage the president’s rhetoric.

Still, his speech sparked a reaction, being met nationwide with “panelaços”—a type of demonstration that became popular during former President Dilma Rousseff’s government, in which people bang on pans and pots—and street protests over the weekend.

For Astrini, even if Bolsonaro has consistently displayed a mocking and dismissive demeanor toward the environmental agenda, he might have to respond under pressure of threats of economic boycotts and public opinion. “If it weren’t for the international repercussion, the president wouldn’t even be bothered by this situation,” Astrini says. “But no one can hide the truth forever.”